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VA taking steps to assist veterans with sexual assault disability claims

Written by: Federal Practice Group
Written by: Federal Practice Group

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Guest Blog

Depending on what statistics one views, military sexual trauma (“MST”) is significantly under-reported -- as many as five in six incidents of MST are not reported. Although MST can and does exist against men and women, it is by far suffered disproportionately by women. For example, while women comprise 14 percent of the Army ranks, they account for 95 percent of all sex crime victims. A recent VA survey found that one in four women said they experienced sexual harassment or assault.

Military service members who have experienced MST traditionally face multiple problems in obtaining a disability rating based on the assault. First, as noted, many assaults go unreported. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that incidents of sexual assault are roughly six times as high as reports of the crimes. In one year recently, there were 3,191 reports of sexual assault throughout the U.S. military, but then-Secretary Panetta said that the true estimate is closer to 19,000.

The reasons for not reporting the sexual assault can be the same as in the civilian world – the shame that comes from being identified as a victim of sexual assault, the fear that one will not be believed –but survivors of MST face special hurdles that civilian survivors do not.

The military’s traditionally male-dominated culture, the uneven response by commanders to MST reports, and the insular environment in which the military operates all contribute to under-reporting. However, for many survivors, particularly women, there is a more compelling reason not to report. For many women, reporting means damage to their career.

As a result, when the VA is processing disability claims based on MST, there are often not sufficient records for the VA to adjust the claim. This is compounded by a VA that is still not equipped to deal with women veterans on the whole. For example, a third of VA medical centers have no gynecologist on staff. Many have only recently opened female restrooms.

VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, a retired Air Force brigadier general, said she is considering asking the Pentagon to allow the VA's benefits department to look at sexual assault "restricted files," dealing with a sexual assault case reported inside the military but deemed private. This would allow the records in those files to be used in considering disability claims.

In addition to the records problem, there are larger problems with the way that the VA processes disability claims. Many of the claims are still handled using paper, instead of electronically. Although the VA has been working to cut down the backlog, there has been criticism of those efforts and it remains to be seen how effective they will be.

There are signs of improvement. According to a Washington Post article, in the two-year period from 2008 to 2010, only about one-third of PTSD claims related to MST were approved. Today, according to the VA, roughly 55 percent of those claims are granted. While this statistic in and of itself may or may not indicate progress, the VA seems to be cognizant of at least the need for change.

Proving your entitlement to a veterans’ disability claim can be difficult. The VA process is hard to understand, and there is no guarantee that your claims administrator will apply the murky rules as they were intended to be applied. Having the assistance of someone who understands the process, your rights, and how to navigate the difficult VA disability bureaucracy can make all the difference.

The knowledgeable military veterans attorneys at The Federal Practice Group have years of experience dealing with military regulations and administrative processes. Many of the firm’s attorneys and other professionals are veterans themselves and understand your fight.

If you or a loved one believes you have a military disability claim, let the experienced military veterans’ disability attorneys at The Federal Practice Group help. Contact The Federal Practice Group today for an evaluation of your military veterans’ disability claim.

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